“I had a lot of funny little worries and anxieties as kids on the spectrum do,” the founder and CEO of I CAN Network says.
“I was a kid that had a lot of ‘I can’t’ talk going on.”
From being the child who ran laps at lunchtime just to ease his gnawing sense of isolation, to becoming the man behind Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people with autism, it turns out there is not much Varney can’t do.
At its core, I CAN is a mentoring and training organisation that helps schools across all sectors to better empower their students on the spectrum to thrive in both their social and academic lives.
“So the vision is to create school communities that benefit from embracing autism,” Varney begins.
“Our purpose it to prove what students with autism can do, so we send mentors (on the spectrum) into schools and they mentor primary and secondary students on the spectrum to feel really feel proud of themselves, to experience a sense of belonging with each other, to have an optimistic attitude towards their different strengths and unique abilities, and also to develop self-confidence…” he adds.
According to Varney, educators have long been ill-equipped to best harness the potential of autistic students.
A lack of PD opportunities that address the experiences and insights of these children is part of the problem.
Thankfully, that’s where I CAN’s PD sessions for teachers have stepped in.
Following their ‘Quiet Magic’ method, staff are now showing educators how to make “subtle adjustments” to squash playground stigma and allow on the spectrum students to shine.
“At the moment, so much of the [support strategies] … are very obvious and are very heavy and they set them up as a kid that has differences and is a bit weird and needs all these ‘things,’” Varney shares.
Varney speaks of the line-up of integration aids, learning management policies and staff/parent meetings that essentially build up the child’s sense of ‘otherness’.
Recently the organisation decided to further share the beauty of Quiet Magic with Victorian educators, in their first professional development conference ‘Leveraging the Strengths of the Autism Spectrum’.
“People were quite emotional, because here they are hearing perspectives on autism from people on the spectrum, some presenters as young as eight, some presenters were 19.
“They got affirmation of what they are already doing well and then a real perspective on what more they could be doing,” Varney recalls.
With plans to extend their services into Queensland and Tasmanian schools this year, Varney is driven onwards by the knowledge that 88 per cent of the 400-odd youngsters already put through the program have reported a greater sense of belonging in their schools.
“The output of Quiet Magic should be that each student on the spectrum has a positive profile among their peers.
“We talk a lot about leveraging the motivations of students, so what are they naturally good at?
“If you’ve got a sporty kid how can you teach them trigonometry through a soccer field? It’s about channelling the strengths of each student so if they area really gifted in one area then using that gift throughout other areas in the curriculum,” Varney says.